It has been over two years since the last new episode of the IFC series Documentary Now!, the wide-ranging spoof of documentaries featuring Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. Finally, Documentary Now! returns for its third season, though there’s just something a little different this time around. In the two-part season premiere, neither Hader nor Armisen appear (likely due to their busy schedules). But their absence actually opens up Documentary Now! for the future as the show can continue to mock the many iterations of non-fiction filmmaking with a rotating cast of guest stars and familiar faces. The two-part season premiere, a spoof of Netflix’s Wild Wild Country entitled Batsh*t Valley, proves there’s a lot of life left in Documentary Now! beyond it’s two original stars.
In the 1980s, a spiritual guru and his followers moved to the quiet little town of Chinook, Oregon. The Shawbardites were led by Father Ra-Shawbard (Owen Wilson). Their unusual rituals, such as eating vegetables from their garden but only after the veggies have given consent, threw the locals for a loop, though it mostly remained peaceful between the two disparate groups. That is until a local shop put up a sign gently mocking the Shawbardites’ beliefs. This sets off a bitter rivalry between Chinook’s mayor Marge Middleton (Deb Hiett) and Ra-Sharir (Necar Zadegan), who has quickly climbed the ranks of the Shawbardites becoming the spokesperson for the group and personal assistant to Ra-Shawbard.
As the tensions between the Shawbardites and the locals escalate in a number of wild, unexpected ways, Ra-Shawbard appears to be losing his grip on reality and his underling in Ra-Sharir. Little did anyone realize that the FBI was monitoring the situation. There’s more to situation in Chinook than on the surface, and the details of the story are recounted by FBI agent Bill Doss (Michael Keaton). Amidst all the twists and turns it’s easy to get lost in Batsh*t Valley.
Written by Seth Meyers and directed by Alex Buono, Batsh*t Valley is a triumphant return for Documentary Now!. Meyers writes a hilarious dissection of Wild Wild Country, lampooning the cults fashioned after westernized versions of eastern religions. The episode steadily escalates in absurdity before reaching its conclusion. Every little detail that unfolds is funnier than the last. As he’s done in previous episodes, director Alex Buono deftly captures the look of the source material. Meticulously staged recreations captured on VHS camcorders gives the archival footage the look of something from the ‘80s while the modern day testimony is as glossy as the Netflix show.
Batsh*t Valley doesn’t suffer from the absence of Hader or Armisen because the episode’s cast is so perfectly assembled. Owen Wilson was born to play a drugged-out cult leader, and he really gets some amazing scenes as the phony guru. Necar Zadegan relishes the role of the villain and her escalating battles with Deb Hiett’s Marge keep the comedy escalating in increasingly absurd ways. Michael Keaton brings a bit of credibility to his over-eager FBI agent, and it’s nice seeing Keaton going all-in on comedy once again. Documentary Now! regulars Gary Kraus and Van Epperson also appear in bit parts that further populate this off-kilter world in the Pacific Northwest.
I can’t think of a better way for Documentary Now! to debut its third season than with the hyper-insanity of Batsh*t Valley. It so clearly illustrates what draws people to this show with its intricate recreations of the source material, writing that honors the source material while cranking up the insanity, and a robust cast that brings the absurdity to life. Batsh*t Valley has so many unexpected twists (even if you’ve seen Wild Wild Country) that I’ve omitted a number of these moments as to not dilute their impact. If Batsh*t Valley is any indication, the third season of Documentary Now! is a show in transition but the behind the scenes changes haven’t affected the output as this is just another incredible episode of an incredible show that simultaneously honors and spoofs documentary filmmaking.
A hilarious two-part premiere for Documentary Now!’s third season, Batsh*t Valley perfectly lampoons Netflix’s Wild Wild Country with great guest appearances by Owen Wilson and Michael Keaton in the tale of a cult gone wrong.